Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

At a time when much attention is focused on assessments of children’s learning, a report prepared for the Council of Chief State School Officers looks at formative assessments, which, as the executive director of the council writes in his forward, “is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning.” In this it differs from “summative assessments,” such as MCAS, which measure what students have learned.

“Early educators may find the report interesting because, although summative assessments like statewide tests are not given in the early grades, formative assessment is increasingly becoming important for educators working with children of all ages,” the Early Ed Watch blog notes. “The report describes in-depth what formative assessment should look like in practice and explains how the information obtained can help them to differentiate their instruction to meet students’ individual needs.”

The study – “Formative Assessment and Next-Generation Assessment Systems: Are We Losing an Opportunity?” — was written by Margaret Heritage of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. Heritage cites the 1998 study “Inside the Black Box,” by Paul Black and Dylan William, Heritage that found that “the student learning gains triggered by formative assessment were amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions,” especially for low achieving students. “This was, and remains, a powerful argument for formative assessment,” Heritage writes, although, Early Ed Watch notes, some experts say this research has been “oversold.”

Heritage expresses concern at “the surprisingly narrow treatment” formative assessment seems to be getting from the two groups of states working to develop assessments aligned with the Common Core Standards — the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Heritage worries about a “slide toward a new form of exogenous measures.”

Commissioner Mitchell Chester of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education chairs PARCC’s governing board; its charge includes developing K-2 assessments. In Massachusetts, the third grade MCAS test is currently the first statewide measure of children’s progress.

“The unprecedented amounts of money that will be spent on the development of next-generation systems,” Heritage writes,  “should surely provide the nation with an opportunity to fully establish formative assessment, not just as a more frequent, finer-grained test (or tool as it is sometimes referred to), but as a practice involving both teachers and students.”

Heritage presented her findings at a panel discussion that was the subject of an Ed Week story.